By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
"Tito, this one's for you!" So said Pep Guardiola as he picked up his Ballon d'Or award for Europe's best coach in January of 2012 and dedicated the award to his long-time assistant and firm friend, who was recovering from cancer in his throat and had endured tough times as he battled back from the illness to resume his role on the Barcelona bench.
But there was a greater gift to come from Guardiola as Pep tipped Tito Vilanova to succeed as his successor, telling the Barca board he would be leaving last summer. At the press conference to announce his departure, the 42-year-old spoke in glowing terms of Vilanova, although there were words of warning too. "Life has handed this kid such a hard test," Guardiola told the media. "You don't know how much he suffered. But he got over it."
|TITO'S TIMELINE IN LA LIGA
|MAKES DREAM DEBUT
||Vilanova's first league game ends in a 5-1 at home to Real Sociedad as Madrid draw with Valencia|
|SEVEN WINS IN A ROW
|SEP 29th||An epic comeback sees Barca beat Sevilla 3-2 and seal a seventh straight success in La Liga|
|DRAWS FIRST CLASICO
|Tito's first league match against Madrid is a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou. Barca are joint top with Atletico|
|WINS NEXT NINE MATCHES
||Barca win their next nine league matches, including a 4-1 win over Atletico, sill in second place|
|SUFFERS CANCER RELAPSE
|DEC 19th||Vilanova needs surgery after his cancer reappears and undergoes an operation the following day|
|TITO IN NY; BARCA WIN AGAIN
|JAN 13th||Barca make it 18 out of 19 wins to finish with 55 points at half way; Tito is in New York for cancer treatment|
|CATALANS LOSE THE CLASICO
|MAR 2nd||With Vilanova still in New York, Barca lose 2-1 at Real Madrid but still lead La Liga by 13 points|
|TITO RETURNS TO BARCELONA
|MAR 26th||Vilanova heads back to Barcelona after two months of treatment for his cancer in New York|
|CLAIMS TITLE AS MADRID DRAW
|MAY 11th||Madrid can only draw at Espanyol and Barca win La Liga with four games left. It's Tito's first title|
Tito took time out following his operation to recover and recuperate in New York. Two months of draining chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed, while the coach remained in close contact with interim boss Jordi Roura. And in the meantime, Barca's league form understandably dipped, although the Catalans' commanding lead from the first half of the competition meant there was never really any danger of missing out on La Liga.
In Tito's absence, Barca lost out to Madrid in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey and were also defeated by Jose Mourinho's men in La Liga, but they advanced to the last eight of the Champions League after an epic comeback against AC Milan days later.
Vilanova was back on the bench to boost Barca for their quarter-final meeting with Paris Saint-Germain and subsequently resumed press duties as well. Slowly but surely, he is feeling fitter and stronger. "I feel good after the long process through which I have been," he said late in April. "After a process like that there are secondary effects, but I feel better all the time, stronger. I feel strong enough to continue and I am excited about that - I will be here next year."
After an arduous debut campaign at the Catalan club and the recent 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Vilanova has asked to be judged at the end of next season, not this one. "We must improve and be self-critical," he explained earlier this week. "It has been a tough year for injuries and the coach has been away for over two months, so it has not been easy. Next year we will do things differently."
Lessons will need to be learned against the big sides, as Barca have struggled in their match-ups with Madrid this term and were outclassed by Bayern over two games. But, in La Liga, Tito's team have been all-but-perfect this season and the Catalans can yet equal the points record of 100 set by Mourinho's men in 2011-12.
Whether or not that total is reached is not important, though. This term's triumph is one for humanity, for a coach who has battled back for a second time to lead his beloved Barca to a brilliant victory when their domestic dominance had been placed in doubt, restoring Catalan control after Mourinho's Madrid had taken the trophy away from their grasp in 2011-12.
Vilanova's victory was restoring hunger and motivation to a tired team, a group of players who had won it all over the previous four seasons. And those footballers must take credit for their consistent performances throughout the Primera Division campaign, losing just two games and winning 28 so far from the remaining 32. It is a hugely impressive haul.
But above anyone else, this is Tito's title. For his brave battle back from life-threatening illness, the Catalan coach has made this success a truly special tale. So his players would do well to echo the words of their former leader Guardiola with a touching toast as they celebrate their latest Liga title: "Tito, this one's for you!"
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